October 2, 2015

Studying the practice of prayer worldwide

During “Why Prayer?,” the NDSP capstone conference, grantees Fareen Parvez, Shira Gabriel, and Ebenezer Obadare had a chance to sit down and discuss their research in France, the United States, and Nigeria.

Fareen Parvez, Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts Amherst, discusses her research on Muslim women in France.

Shira Gabriel, Associate Professor of Psychology at State University of New York at Buffalo, talks about her work on prayer and cognition.

Ebenezer Obadare, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Kansas, describes what he means by the phrase “charismatic Islam.”

July 22, 2015

Not Your Grandmother's Islam

Ebenezer ObadareEbenezer Obadare, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, is researching the emergence of what he terms “Charismatic Islam” in Nigeria. Despite the electricity going out just as he started discussing Pentecostal notions of power, Obadare reported from Lagos to Jennifer Lois Hahn on interfaith competition and exchange, political power shifts, and the role of the nation’s largest freeway in the spiritual marketplace there.


Jennifer Lois Hahn: Can you give readers who might be unfamiliar with Nigeria a brief picture of the religious landscape there at the moment?

EO: Nigeria is the most populous African country. One in every 5 or 6 Africans is a Nigerian. The population is about 175 million. There are three broad Ethno-language regions: the Hausa land in the north, the Yoruba in the south, and the Igbo in the east. There are hundreds of other minority groups. In terms of religion, there is a more or less clean divide between the Muslim north and the Christian south, with Catholicism being the predominant denomination in the southeast and Pentecostalism being the dominant form in the southwest. Perhaps because of this, the history of the country has always unfolded along the lines of tension between the two contending religions.

JLH: Where do traditional African religions fit into this picture?

EO: So that is a very interesting question, and I’m glad you asked because it usually doesn’t feature in most analyses. It’s there in the sense that you still find people who identify themselves as traditional worshipers. But it’s also an intangible presence in both Islamic and Christian practice and ideology. It almost becomes this “other” against which the “global” religions constantly measure themselves, an other that they really can’t do without. It’s the other that they deny, that they need to demonize in order to establish themselves.

JLH: How would you explain the growth of Pentecostalism in Nigeria?

EO: There are so many reasons for it. One is the fact that it succeeds, in the sense that people can point to concrete milestones and say, “This was my life before I became a born again Christian and this is my life now.” Those milestones are usually material milestones. The spiritual is also there. One can say, “I’m spiritually overhauled, I’m refurbished, I’m a different person.” A much more important reason why Pentecostalism has been a success is that it has been able to give people a source of stability and meaning in a general context in which meaning remains elusive and the state remains distant from people’s everyday lives. It’s become a site of solidarity for people otherwise left behind among the rough and tumble of everyday life. For many people, it has provided a concrete community. You have friends, you have associates, you have fellow professionals who you can say are also Pentecostals. For many people that is ground, almost literally, to stand upon, in a context in which global, economic, cultural, and material forces are trying to pull the rug out from under your feet. That ground becomes something very tangible and very real for many people. I think the other thing is, in a context in which the state has failed for many people, Pentecostalism provides an alternative horizon. It provides an explanation. It tells you, “Oh, the reason the state has failed is because we’ve been derelict in ethical respect. There are things we ought to be doing as a nation that we are not doing.” So it provides a framework for people to make sense of the world around them in terms of the everyday community in which they live, but also the global community in which they find themselves. For example, if you talk to many Pentecostals about the crisis of education in the country, they will say many of these things are punishment for the sins of our leaders.

JLH: In one of your papers, you write about how Pentecostalism gives people access to power, that through the Holy Spirit people find this line to power that they wouldn’t normally have. Someone of a more Marxist-functionalist bent might question if that is real power.

EO: When we think about power in this context, we’re talking about power in at least two senses. One is the power behind all powers that every Pentecostal assumes is there. Meaning behind what you see right now–

Can you see me right now? The electricity, the power is gone so just give me a second. Hey, this is Nigeria! I think it’s actually very interesting that we’re talking about power now and the power just left. [Laughs]

So for Pentecostals, the assumption is that behind everything we see, everything that is tangible, there is a different, ultimate source of power that sustains, produces, undergirds, and authorizes every other power—political power, material power, economic power. In order to fully understand that you have to go the African cultural worldview, particularly the Yoruba cultural worldview. Agbara is Yoruba for power. Without that power, you can’t do anything. You need power in order to be able to achieve anything in life. J. D. Y. Peel has written extensively about this. So that’s the first and most important sense in which power can be understood. The other type of power, in terms of understanding Pentecostal notions of power, is political power of course. In the Nigerian context, it’s not just political power as political power. It’s political power in a context in which there is a struggle for political supremacy between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south. In the perception of many people, the Muslim North has held on to power for so long. Those in the south feel marginalized. Part of the discussion leading to the birth of the Fourth Republic in 1999 was a demand for what was called a power-shift. It was a power-shift in two senses: from the Muslims to the Christians and from the north to the south. So those are the two senses in which power features in the Pentecostal imaginary.

The suspicion that spiritual power doesn’t always translate into economic or political gains is basically correct. But the empirical data complicates things. Take for instance the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which is easily the most prominent and successful Pentecostal denomination in Nigeria, if not in Africa, right now. So if you go with the argument that spiritual power doesn’t really translate into economic power, you’d be denying the reality that this church has come from very humble beginnings to become an economic behemoth. It’s got one of the biggest church spaces in the entire world. The church has universities. It employs thousands of people. So for those people, the disparity that a secularist interpretation might assume between spiritual power and economic power does not exist. What actually exists is a translation from one to the other in which if you mobilize spiritual power, economic power is most likely to follow.

JLH: Let’s talk about Charismatic Islam. I’d never heard the term before reading your work. Is that a term that you coined?

EO: I did.

JLH: Very cool! Can you talk about the ways in which Muslims are borrowing, reinterpreting, or appropriating Pentecostal ways of worship?

EO: I came up with Charismatic Islam to describe the reality I saw on the ground of Muslims increasingly relying on the same repertoires and devotional strategies of Pentecostals. So I could have called it Pentecostal Islam, but that would have been very problematic. But there was no way to get around the fact that certain Pentecostal practices were showing up in the Islamic context. And Charismatic Islam was a way for me to make sense of that and to name that phenomenon. To say, “This is what I’m looking at. This is not your grandmother’s Islam.” This is a new formation of Islam—contemporary, current, and modern, getting all its signals and suggestions from Pentecostalism. But here is the issue, and I think it’s important to underscore this: what I’m trying to describe is not a one-way affair. It’s an economy. In this part of the world, spatially, culturally, and in every other regard, Islam and Christianity have been very contiguous. When two great religions have lived in close quarters, when their practitioners have drunk from the same cultural water, it becomes almost impossible to have very strict denominational boundaries. I guess that’s a very roundabout way of saying that, in the past, Christianity has borrowed from Islam and Islam has borrowed from Christianity. And in the more distant past, both Christianity and Islam have borrowed from traditional religion. So Charismatic Islam then becomes the latest iteration of this process of mutual convergence, appropriation, and borrowing that takes place in a context of very fierce and intense interfaith competition. But this also takes place within a cultural framework in which people take it for granted that, “My cousin can become a Muslim. I can become a Christian.” For many people it’s not a big deal to have a Christian dad and Muslim mom, or vice versa.

JLH: Can you talk about some specific ways in which Muslims are appropriating Pentecostal practices?

EO: One good example is Muslims holding Sunday services. Globally, Sunday is the day of prayer for Christians. But increasingly in this part of the world because of this intense competition, Muslims are now saying, “If we can’t beat you, we can at least join you. We can make sure that you don’t poach all our kids, you don’t take them away to Christianity. At the national level, where political contestation goes on, we’re also able to match you.”

JLH: Have Muslims adopted the Pentecostal practice of spiritual warfare?

EO: The emphasis on the devil, on evil forces, on the evil eye, on witchcraft, on a particular construction of a demonology, a world-view in which there is always a negative “other”, either ambushing you, waylaying you, or something there that is frustrating your plans, and that doesn’t want you to succeed—that imagination, that demonology, has become part and parcel of Islamic prayer and devotional practices. This also takes us back to what I said earlier about the way in which African traditional metaphysics is almost always at the background of Christianity. Whether you are a Muslim or a Christian in this part of the world, you are first and foremost something else—and that is an African. You are born into a particular cultural habitus. There is no running away from that habitus, in that it catches you off guard when you are not even thinking about it. It’s pre-theoretical, it’s there before you even know it. It’s something that structures the way you see the world. For Christianity and Islam, it becomes something against which they continually battle, especially in the context of what Pentecostals and increasingly Muslims call spiritual warfare. I was listening on the radio yesterday, and a popular local musician, a Muslim by identification and practice, was signing a live song. And it came to this solemn moment where he started describing himself as a new person, and he used the term “born again.” We all know that usually when you say you are born again, it means that you were already a Christian, and that you became a new kind of Christian. But that word has now migrated from a Christian context into a Muslim context.

JLH: Before we forget, let’s talk about the Lagos Expressway. I was so taken by what you have written about what’s going on there religiously. Can you describe that for our readers?

NASFAT Islamic Center | Photo by Ebenezer ObadareEO: So the Lagos-Ibadan expressway is easily the most lively, traveled, and busy highway in Nigeria. Over time, because of Nigeria’s traditional problems with maintenance, it fell into disrepair. But it is still the artery that takes you from Lagos, which is a port city, to other parts of the country. So you have to travel on that road. The road is being fixed now, sort of. But that’s beside the point. The point is that at some point it became clear to everybody that in order to be able to establish a presence, you needed a spot on that Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. The first church to do that was the Redeemed Church of Christian God, which established a redemption camp somewhere on the expressway. Part of why the church did that—this has been acknowledged in the literature—was not just to have a physical space that was away from the hustle and bustle of Lagos, but also to signal its own capacity to build a city, a space, that was morally and ethically different from the rest of the country. Initially it was a camp where you would basically go to do the work of spiritual overhauling: you would commune with god, keep in touch with yourself, and undergo the [spiritual?] bath. Over time, the camp became, slowly and then very rapidly after a while, a city by itself. It has its own banks, its own schools. It’s extensive up in there. It’s huge! The centerpiece is the worship center. It’s almost like a Pentecostal Vatican if you will. So the redemption camp became very famous. Every year, they have the Holy Ghost Conference, and people come from every part of the world. I’m talking millions of people. But don’t forget, we’re talking about an expressway that is slowly falling into disrepair. Meaning that every time the Redeemed Christian Church holds a service, things just go crazy on the expressway. Drivers have been caught up in the ensuing anarchy, sometimes for twelve or even 16 hours of absolutely no motion. They can’t go anywhere. It didn’t take the Muslims too long to realize that something was going on here, that this expressway had been claimed by Christians, represented in this case by the Redeemed Church. What they needed to do was not just to contest that space, physically and metaphysically, but to say, “We too can bring traffic to a halt. Look at us. We’re big. We’re mighty! There are millions of us.” So at some point the Muslims decided that the only way they could match what the Christians were doing was to also have their own prayer camp on the expressway. Lo and behold, the Muslim prayer group Nasirul-Lahi-L-Fatih Society of Nigeria (NASFAT) bought a piece of land on the expressway and established their own prayer camp. One of the most symbolic things they did was to engineer their own traffic snarl. It wasn’t an accident. The secretary who I spoke to in the course of my research said, “We did it deliberately.” I asked why and he said, “We wanted them to know that they are not the only ones who can block the highway.” And they did! And a lesson was learned. I recently needed to drive on that road again, and there are tens if not hundreds of churches and mosques on that expressway, on both sides. I’m talking real estate that would blow your mind. There are massive billboards. It’s become a space for every church or mosque to say, “This is who we are. We’re taking a stand. We’re present.” The political battle is carried out here in a special sense with people basically saying the expressway belongs to us, in the same way that they are fighting a battle for the possession of political supremacy in the country.

JLH: It seems the members of NASFAT are largely professional, urban types of people. To what extent does the use of Pentecostal forms exist in other Muslim groups and demographics? Are more conservative Muslims adopting Pentecostal practices in the same way?

EO: NASFAT is not the only autonomous Charismatic Islamic group in this part of the country. There are actually tens if not hundreds of groups. It’s an Islamic resurgence in itself, motivated partly by struggles within the faith—contentions, disputations, and all kinds of arguments happening among Muslims. At the same time, it is definitely a response to the stimulus provided by the success of Pentecostalism. As popular as NASFAT is, and as definite as the larger resurgence is, there are still elements within the faith that are not comfortable with many of these changes. But there is also an acknowledgement that if you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to do some of these things. It’s a catch-22 situation. You want to remain competitive in a religious marketplace, but you want to do that while holding on to your soul, to your identity that you think fundamentally constitutes you. So that’s the kind of struggle that is going on.

JLH: I’m curious about the church/state situation there, with both Pentecostals and Muslims. Are religious groups trying to vie for the government being officially one way or the other?

EO: Absolutely. That is part of what I was talking about when I mentioned the power-shift argument. There is a perception that not just northerners, but Muslim northerners, have been in charge of the levers of power for too long, and that power needs to shift to the South, geographically but also religiously. It has been a constant trope in Nigerian politics. So if you look at the last election where the then-incumbent was a southern minority Christian matched up against a northern Muslim, the religious factor became quite prominent. So there were Pentecostals who thought then-President Jonathan, the Christian, wasn’t quite up to par, but supported him anyway because he’s a Christian and because under him they received significant concessions, access to power, and so many other things that you get from proximity to power. But there were other Pentecostals who were willing to support a Muslim candidate. Yesterday I asked a pastor, “Who did you support?” and he said, “I supported [now-president] Buhari”. I said, “Even though he’s a Muslim?” and he said, “Yeah, I supported him because even though he’s a Muslim, I think he was the better of the two candidates.”

JLH: You know how in the United States there is often so much rhetoric about separation of church and state, and that if a President is religious he should keep that separate from his governing. I’m wondering if there is a similar rhetoric there? For instance, if someone is a Pentecostal president, do people think they should keep that out of governance?

EO: A tiny group of intelligentsia and academics does—though of course not all academics. I count myself among that tribe, people who believe that you should keep church and state separate. Because once you don’t do that, you are creating room for the emergence of all kinds of problems. But most people don’t buy that argument. Most people think that there is nothing wrong with a Christian showing that he is a Christian. And there is nothing wrong with a Muslim showing that he is a Muslim. Now this is where it gets interesting: Muslims may resent the open, pornographic display of Christianity in the enactment of power, the same way that Christians might resent what they call Islamization of the state. So I guess, when a Christian is in power and I’m a Christian, everything is fine. And when you are a Muslim and a Muslim is in power, it’s fantastic. Right now we have a new president who is trying to find his feet. Expect Christians in the next few months to start saying, “There are too many Muslims in power anyway. Oh, he’s going to Saudi Arabia again? When a Christian was in power, it wasn’t this bad.” So that’s part of the background noise that I guess you are always going to expect.

JLH: You’ve written about the emergence of women in leadership positions in Nigerian Muslim groups. Is that also something that is a mirroring of Pentecostalism?

EO: I don’t know the extent to which it’s a mirroring of Pentecostalism, but part of the unwitting outcome of the development of Charismatic Islam is the fact that suddenly women are also becoming very prominent players within the Islamic faith. Two of the people I had the opportunity to interview are female Muslim preachers, who are married to men, but who have a degree of independence from their men. They are basically in their own individual camps by themselves. One is building a whole mosque. The other actually has a school. So a new spirit of entrepreneurship and individual assertiveness seems to have broken out among women as a result of the development of what I call Charismatic Islam. I don’t think it was intended. Men never intend for women to be free. But it’s clear that when you look back, this is why this has happened. I spoke to a conservative Islamic scholar in Ibadan and an Islamic theologian at the University and both of them kind of agreed and said, “Look, we get modernization and doing things differently, adjusting to new practical realities, but, hey, women shouldn’t lead prayers.” As a result of this development, there are also now very interesting debates among Muslims: “What did Khadijah do? What did the wives of the Prophet do? How much leeway did they have?” And the women leaders say, “You know, I’m sorry but your reading of the Koran is not my reading.” Which at the end of the day, I think is a very, very positive development. Having said that, within both Pentecostal and Islamic groups, you can say without fear of contradiction that we still live in a strictly male-dominated and very hierarchical system. I don’t want anyone to walk away thinking that Nigeria has become this avant-garde bastion for female liberation. No, it’s still a male-dominated world and I think it’s going to take a lot of time before that will change. Part of the interesting development within Pentecostalism is also the emergence of women-preachers, but many of them are preachers to the extent that they are identified as wives of pastors.

JLH: One last question. You’ve said before that Islam in Africa is understudied. Why do you think that is?

EO: Ever since I discovered that, I’ve been trying to find an answer myself. It’s not as if Islam is not interesting to study, right? Now I’m basically thinking on my feet, so I don’t know if this is the right answer, but perhaps the association of Christianity with western modernity has played a role. I don’t know the extent to which that helped in the development of literature around Christianity and sort of left Islam more or less under-appreciated. That and the initial reluctance by Muslims to send their children to missionary schools for fear of having them converted. But I think that it is beginning to change. Muslims themselves are writing more and more about the faith. And I think the fact that people notice all the exchanges between Christianity and Islam is working in favor of Islam. It was my interest in religion that took me to study Pentecostalism, but you can’t study Pentecostalism in Nigeria these days without talking about Islam. So the explosion of Pentecostalism, in the end, becomes something positive and beneficial for the study of Islam.

May 22, 2015

Landscapes of Environmental Prayer: Shifting Dedication

Landscapes of prayer for the environment in Indonesia are being transformed primarily through interventions of dedication and intent, and secondarily through structural form. Cases of observances of various forms of Muslim prayer, such as observances known as du’a, dhikr, and salawat are presented here by considering how a third term besides supplicant and deity, namely the natural world and its conditions, or “the environment,” comes to emerge or alternatively recede in changing landscapes of prayer. Expectations that prayer carry an intent, subject to the individual dedication of action, now coincide with an expanded array of options for dedication with respect to environmental change, both in the present and in the future.

Emerging structures and orientations for Muslim environmental religious observances are not dramatically new in terms of their formal enactments in Indonesia. By and large they preserve religious and ritual structures that predate the 20-21st centuries. New strategies to promote aspects of local “culture” in order to foster notions of environmental connection and responsibility may even revitalize otherwise declining practices. What is becoming altered, however, are possibilities for the dedication and orientation of practices that some Muslims now seek intentionally to promote as “environmental prayer.”

In the current era of the Anthropocene, in which human actions dominate planetary conditions, any global prayer practice could be said to be “about” the environment. Not only does the state of the biosphere determine human survival, just as it always has, but now humans alter those conditions irrevocably and on a global scale. To designate a prayer to be explicitly “environmental” is also new, just as the English-language expression, “the environment” (in contrast to a concept of “nature,” for example), is distinctively modern. Landscapes of prayer shift in Muslim Indonesia as a direct effect of changes in the natural world (alam), as in the case of a natural disaster, as well as with respect to the development of explicitly social ideas like that of “the environment” (lingkungan hidup).

As with other global faith traditions, typical Muslim religious expression related to “the environment” reflects expectations of instrumentalism: these acts are expected to be purposive or intended for something, rather than, say, performed self-justifyingly for their own sake. “Acts are known by their intentions” overall from the perspective of Islamic legal traditions, Paul R. Powers explains in his study of Muslim jurisprudence and philosophy. In other words, intention shapes the identity and recognition of any ritual act. Thus, to introduce a new intentional field, “the environment,” in ritual activity means also to reconfigure substantively the act itself.

We can understand niyya (Islamic ritual intent) by considering it first with respect to obligatory rituals in Islam, ‘ibadat (acts of worship) that are also rewarded in the life to come. These include the five pillars of Islam (such as praying, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage). Only with intent performed as an explicit component of action are these considered legally or spiritually valid: a good example of this is how the act of forming niyya is a requirement of salat (canonical worship) in Islam, as discussed in detail in a recent book on Islamic prayer by Marion H. Katz.

In modern Indonesian contexts, anthropologists John R. Bowen, writing on salat in Indonesia, and Mark R. Woodward, analyzing a Javanese ritual called the slametan, show how intention is a locus of practical and theological controversy and consensus in historical and cultural contexts. More generally, a wide range of disputes about the permissibility of practices in the history of Islamic thought and practice have long been resolved by an assessment of intent, whether in the modernist/reformist rhetoric of the colonial and post-colonial eras or long ago, in the time of the earliest development of Sufi expression.

In addition to acts of canonical worship known as salat, there are many types of “prayers” performed by Muslims in Islamic Indonesia and globally, and many sorts of purposes and non-formal intents go along with them. For example, du’a is the word for acts that fall within the category of supplicatory or petitionary prayer, whether performed in Arabic or another language that Muslims speak. Dhikr is a disciplined practice of repeated or repetitive piety; it may be performed communally or individually, and may be associated with esoteric expression or with the regimens of self-cultivation of Sufi orders. Dhikr may also be an act of devotion, such as rehearsing divine praise of the names of God after daily worship.

Muslims in Indonesia also engage in prayers in spaces and times that are contested. These include veneration performed at the tombs of holy or powerful figures such as the “Wali Songo” or “Nine Saints” of Java. Also controversial have been communal recitations like the mawlid (sometimes called barzanji for an author of one of the versions, and sometimes called salawat nabi) that venerates the Prophet Muhammad through his life story and praise. More theologically problematic still is the popular talqin reading, often Surat 36 Ya Sin of the Qur’an, observed in commemoration of the dead.

The prayer-types as outlined above follow a progression from what are probably the least contested practices (salat, du’a) to those that are considered more questionable among certain scholars (mawlid, talqin). The historical grounds for objections to such practices are usually that proper intention has been distracted or diverted; for example, reformers may claim that the questionable acts are not performed for the sake of Allah but rather for the sake of something else, like a saint’s intercession.

Texts of Islamic jurisprudence do authorize a form of environmental prayer that has a worldly dedication. These are salat prostrations for rain, called salat al-istisqa, which is based on a hadith (report) that the Prophet Muhammad conducted the practice. As a normative ritual, it is governed by guidelines that include a combination of du’as (prayer formulas) and rak’at (prostrations), just as are performed in daily salat. Classical books of fiqh treat it within a class of required salat on the occasion of unpredictable yet inevitable events, like funerals, and salat in the event of natural “signs” such as eclipses and earthquakes. The difference between salat al-istisqa and other salats in this grouping is that prayer for rain occurs before, not after, the event.

Another key difference between the required daily salat of worship and salat for rain is that the salat for rain is a petition for a specific outcome. As with most Muslim du’a, there is a third term added to the relation of God to supplicant: the event of falling rain. Present scholars of religion would feel at ease calling this practice “environmental” since it is a religious response to climate disturbance (i.e., drought). The Indonesian cases presented here, highlight environmental ritual practices that are performed in response to environmental conditions and those that anticipate them, and also practices that have been altered as a result of environmental change.

All of the cases discussed here relate to new prayer-intents, such as: formulating an explicit, instrumental purpose for an enactment; establishing an intent that is singled out from among other possibilities; and, making a dedication that is specifically “the environment.” I offer two pairings of ethnographic examples of prayer related to the environment in eastern and central Java, Indonesia. The first two of these cases are accounts of the effects of the catastrophic eruption of the volcano, Mount Merapi, in 2010. The other examples are instances of a transformation of older devotional practice (dhikr and salawat nabi) in new, “environmental” registers. These examples represent how intentional dislocation and re-ascription may be critical to contemporary practices of prayers, rendered with the environmental urgency that increasingly defines a shared global experience.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

May 22, 2015

Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster

Indonesia is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, and it is one of the most severely threatened due to deforestation, sea temperature rise and acidification, and other impacts of resource extraction and environmental degradation. Indonesia is also vulnerable to disasters, like earthquakes; these disasters may also be intensified by human factors, as in the case of severe weather events that are linked to climate change.

Disaster brought both the beginning and the end of prayer to the slopes of Mt. Merapi, Java, when the volcano erupted in 2010. Conditions of chaos and re-established social order following the catastrophic eruption transformed key relations of religious dedication. Below I consider two examples: one documents prayer arising spontaneously in the context of environmental crisis, while the other relates of the end of a kind of prayer, or more specifically a mode of its dedication, also brought on as a result of the disaster.

In Cangkringan District, Sleman, there is a pesantren (residential religious school, a madrasa) called Al-Qodir. It is located right at the boundary of what was the initial evacuation line at the time of the volcano’s eruption. This meant that the residents who fled from within the perimeter of the evacuation zone came to the pesantren as refugees in the first hours, days and weeks after the eruption. (For another firsthand story of an Islamic pesantren and disaster relief in the area, see the end of this video, taken in 2011, explaining efforts underway at Pondok Pesantren Pabelan, in Maggelang near the Borobudur monument.)

The leader, or kiai, of “Pondok Pesantren Al-Qodir” is K.H. Masrur Ahmad. In a 2014 interview in Ramadan, K.H. Masrur explained the chain of events at Al-Qodir at the time of the eruption:

Al-Qodir had already long been known as a center for interreligious activity, but in October and November 2010, the multifaith commitments of refugees and relief workers made it a site at which boundaries of religious practice were blended through shared, urgent need.

Sleman, Central Java, has been a region of tense conflict among Christians and Muslims; however, the recognition of common experience and intention made spontaneous, communal prayer possible at pesantren Al-Qodir in 2010. At time signature 3:20 in the video embedded above, K.H. Masrur narrates how interreligious prayer took shape as people gathered at the evacuation line. Communal prayer that broke down boundaries was made possible by shared purpose or intent, namely safety (5:29), which allowed members of different faith communities to come together in shared observances and in one voice.

The eruption brought other religious changes in Cangkingan over the long-term as well as the short term. Some alterations of prayer practices were exclusive, not inclusive, with respect to traditional intentions. This, however, did not mean that such practices disappeared. Rather, a purpose with respect to the natural world was recast in the context of disaster relief efforts.

The ritual called the labuhan is a longstanding annual Javanese observance during which offerings are made to the spirits of Mt. Merapi. These offerings, such as new clothes, are gifts from the sultan of Jogjakarta, provided to the mountain’s spirit-guardian. Besides Mt. Merapi, offerings are also made at two other locations linked to the kraton, the royal palace of Jogjakarta, Central Java. The ritual begins with simultaneous processions leading from the palace to the ritual sites, the mountains and the beach of the southern sea respectively. The labuhan on Mt. Merapi, however, changed in imagination if not in its form after the eruption of the volcano and the concurrent passing of the mountain’s juru kunci (gatekeeper), Mbah Maridjan. (This documentary film on Mbah Maridjan includes an historic interview with him.)

As the juru kunci of Mt. Merapi, Mbah Maridjan, now deceased, was charged with conducting the labuhan annually. In his lifetime, he was famous for his daily silent walks up the mountain to visit its special sites, during which villagers would accompany him. On the day of the worst eruption in October 2010, when the call came for evacuation, he did not leave his home in his village on the mountain. The red cloud of pyroclastic flow subsequently swept down the slope at a temperature estimated at 600 degrees centigrade. His burned body was found later in the position of salat prayer prostration. Thirty-nine others from his village also died, many of whom had returned to their homes when they thought it was “all clear” to retrieve their animals. In total, the eruption caused 350 fatalities on the mountain.The figure of Mbah Maridjan is now venerated widely. Many praise his dedication to his role as juru kunci and to the sacred mountain, and he is seen as having made the ultimate sacrifice in this capacity. His house, once buried in ash, and his adjacent grave have now become a tourist destination. The role of juru kunci has since been passed on to his son (see top photo), Mas Asih Surakso Hargo (“Pak Asih”). Pak Asih says he is the fourth juru kunci of his line, now serving under the tenth sultan of Jogjakarta; the lineage began in his family under the eighth sultan of Jogjakarta. He continues the ritual of the labuhan, which has transitioned in public imagination out of the domain of religious rite and into the realm of “culture” and “tradition.”

I took the hike up the mountain with Pak Asih early one morning in July (Ramadan) 2014. The path starts at the ruins of the village where he had lived with his father before the evacuation; the government prohibits re-settlement there. He explained that it had taken three months to clear the path up to the second post, where the labuhan ritual is now held. (It used to be conducted higher up at the third post, but the way there is still obstructed, blocked by debris and ash.) Following a narrow path of loose rock up the steep grade of the slope, I saw signs prohibiting hunting in the sacred area. We met numerous people coming to clear vegetation for feed for livestock, even though the government prohibits anyone to live for quite a distance below. One person said he was carrying wood, and a couple more came along with hunting dogs. Pak Asih was guarding the mountain through his watchful presence in the social and physical landscape during our long hike, talking to everyone we met, all of whom recognized him instantly. When we got as far as we would go, the second post, he asked to take a picture of me under a tree he himself had planted. We stopped for a while there, the location of the ritual since the eruption, as he uttered silent devotions. On the way back down, we chatted about environmental studies and the importance of protecting the watershed against deforestation. He showed me where Mbah Maridjan had planted trees whose leaves protect against malaria.

Pak Asih explains the labuhan ritual conducted at the top of the path in the following segment of video:

At the end of the clip (6:28), when asked about the changes to the ritual since the eruption, he responds in terms of the intensification and proliferation of activities, not their disappearance. Labuhan has become embedded in what is now a media event, he explains. Since the eruption, disaster relief efforts have promoted festivalization as a part of community-building initiatives; the multi-day event now includes traditional dances, shadow puppet theater and popular musical performances.

Prayer, as in labuhan devotions to the mountain-spirits, had become a public enactment of “cultural tradition.” Pak Asih explains this point in his own words in the video segment posted below, in which he narrates the complete origin-myth of the ritual, explaining why the mountain’s guardian, Sapu Jagad, receives offerings from the sultan during the labuhan every year:

He clarifies here emphatically that the purpose of the ritual is not to worship or petition the mountain, or its spirit, since these are the creations of Allah the Creator, who Alone is worthy of praise (8:10). In the final minute of the clip above, Pak Asih emphasizes that the labuhan is a practice of cultural heritage. Intent, if it was formerly to petition the mountain or its spirits, now conforms to confirmations that do not leave space for ontological ambiguity. Labuhan is still performed, and bigger than ever, but now as “culture” not “religion.” Dedicated purpose for prayer is has come consciously to be framed among various competing or complementary commitments, aligning with reformist voices of Islam.

On the other hand, we never did discuss what Pak Asih was saying quietly when we were at the ritual site, or as he stopped for a few moments at various locations along the way. When asked, Pak Asih only offered that individual and private devotions were still observed by others. The purpose of such prayers that appeared to respond directly to the conditions of the natural world had disappeared from access. With both the gatekeeper of Mt. Merapi as well as the case of interfaith prayer in the evacuation zone of its eruption, catastrophe in the natural world had come to reveal dramatically either the rejection, adaptation or inclusion of competing possibilities for ritual purpose across what was a radically altered terrain.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

May 22, 2015

Dedicating Environmental Devotions

In a trend I have seen developing in Indonesia for at least two decades, some Muslims in Indonesia have recast traditional devotional observances, salawat and dhikr, for non-traditional intents and purposes. Salawat are prayers of peace and blessings devoted to the Prophet Muhammad—a longstanding tradition with a Qur’anic support, which became increasingly popular in the “Islamic revival” since the 1990s (for explanation, see my book). This phenomenon would have been unexpected decades before, given historical controversy around the practice. Salawat has come now to be increasingly performed in new contexts and for public purposes, such as mass entertainment. While long carried out for instrumental ends, such as blessing a at a new baby’s naming ceremony, it was also now being observed for beneficial outcome in new contexts such as corporate functions and even, in one case I documented, as a way for a women’s mosque group to support the home soccer team to a win from up in the stands.

Such practices may be dedicated as suits the practitioners, whether as individuals or as part of a group. In modern contexts, dedication that is specified for an explicit purpose may be expected in many circumstances. In two cases of environmental prayer described below, a formerly generalized practice has been reworked specifically in service of the well-being of a newly-introduced ritual agent, “the environment.” In both of these cases of Muslim environmental devotions, “the environment” has been introduced as a third agent with respect to the relation of supplicant to petitioned, perhaps as the primary beneficiary of prayer practice. However, re-dedicated intent is also overlaid, implicitly or explicitly, on traditional prayer practices that are not formally changed.

An example of “eco-salawat” provided by a highly respected kiai (religious scholar) in West Java demonstrates this re-dedication of prayer to environmental intent. K.H. Thonthawi Jauhari Musaddad of Pondok Pesantren “Al-Wasilah” is renowned for his Islamic religious knowledge as well as his environmental activism (see this article for more on K.H. Thonthawi). Along with developing Islamic law of the environment through key fatwas (non-binding legal opinions) under the authority of the national organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, K.H. Thontawi has also developed new forms of environmental religious devotion that preserve traditional forms. Here is a short recorded excerpt of his eco-salawat from 2010, the full text of which appears in the article linked above.

The first verse of the 45-second clip is from standard Arabic “salawat nabi,” as recited for centuries by Muslims worldwide, in accord with a Qur’anic injunction. It calls prayers, peace and blessings on the Prophet Muhammad, his family and his companions. The second part, in the national language of Bahasa Indonesia, is for the environment. It translates as: “With blessing (we) care for the natural world, a healthy environment, the Earth sustained.” A new intent has been created (environmental care), here both spoken and explicit, while the traditional structure and authority of salawat tradition remain the same.

At an “eco-pesantren,” a traditional Islamic school dedicated to environmentalism, located across the island of Java, new forms of environmental religious observance were developing along similar lines. This is another case of the conservation of traditional devotional ritual form with re-purposed intent. However, environmental purpose is internalized and left to individual choice in prayer, even as it is officially sponsored by the institution. This follows religious theory and practice that are consistent with Muslim Sufi tradition as well as modern, globalized structures of religious participation.

I have seen two “eco-dhikrs” at the institution called “Pesan Trend Ilmu Giri,” which is located on the southern side of the city of Jogjakarta (Mt. Merapi lies to the north), in the vicinity of Imo Gir. This is the area of the tombs of the kings of central Java, both Majapahit and Mataram dynasties. The dhikr observance I attended in 2011 did include an opening dedication of salawat for the sake of the environment, as well as to the Prophet Muhammad. Later in 2014, I returned to film another enactment: like the previous one, it corresponded with a calendrical observance traditional to Java, in which various forms of Muslim chant occur on certain nights of certain months.

The ritual in Ramadan 2014 was a “Selasa Pon” in which the first chapter of the Qur’an, Al-Fatihah, is recited forty-one times. “The Fatihah” is the surah recited with each cycle of salat (which means it is to be recited seventeen times a day, adding up all five daily prayers). As scholars of Islam—from Fazlur Rahman to Mahmoud Ayyoub—have observed, the sura itself takes the structure of a prayer. The entire “Selasa Pon” ritual, edited from its original length of about 40 minutes down to 20 minutes, can be viewed here:

The dhikr above was convened at Ilmu Giri after the special evening tarwih prayers of Ramadan (which mixes prostrations with ritual audition of Qur’an) and supererogatory, nighttime salat, called witr. The introspective and participatory nature of the dhikr lends itself to an intent of environmental well-being at this eco-pesantren, whose stated mission is sustainability and environmental care; nevertheless, there was no explicit mention of “the environment” during the entire ritual, which is exceedingly conservative of its traditional form.

Ilmu Giri’s founder, H.M. Nasruddin Ch. succinctly introduced the ritual as an eco-dhikr on the same night of its observance documented above, using the following words.

First, he frames the practice in terms of a regime of self-cultivation, using classic Sufi concepts and terminology (e.g., a Sufi observance called mujahada). In the next statement, however, he names the spiritual quality to be developed as khalifa (“stewardship”), a Qur’anic term linked to humanity’s responsibility to care for God’s creation. From the context, it is clear he means this to be understood as “environmental stewardship.” The ritual, with an intent that he says is interiorized, he now names as an eco-dhikr. At 1:15, H.M. Nasruddin suggests that alignment of internal order and cosmological order leads to environmental well-being, with words I translate as, “After this, it is not possible to destroy the environment” because the ritual has “humanized humanity, naturalized nature, and divinized the Divine.”

In each of these cases of Muslim environmental devotions, “the environment” has been introduced as an intentional object, a third agent with respect to the relation of supplicant to petitioned. “The environment” could even be said to be the primary beneficiary of prayer practice. As with the cases of changing prayers in the aftermath of disaster on Mt. Merapi, these cases of re-dedicated intent also represent a reworking, whether implicit or explicit, of traditional prayer practices that nevertheless do not change formally in their outward structure.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

May 22, 2015

Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

All of the cases show re-dedication of prayers by Muslims with respect to the environment within a landscape of multiple, even expanding options. One ritual had come to exclude agents of prayer with connection to the natural world, the mythic guardian spirit (who nevertheless still receives his new clothes and offerings every year). Coinciding with expectations that religious intention should become rationalized, the traditional forms of prayer associated with labuhan had been rendered as non-religious “culture,” while their identity as private devotion receded into domains of the inaccessible. As a response to the same event that precipitated social change of the labuhan, another form of prayer in the wake of disaster unexpectedly shifted boundaries of intent to include others (Christians) as purpose was reshaped by abrupt environmental change.

Across the island of Java, devotions for environmental well-being introduced a new object of purpose (“the environment” itself), through forms of dhikr and salawat that nevertheless still conserved outward form. Esoteric theory and practice combined with modern patterns of ritual purpose to support the specificity of such explicitly “environmental” prayer. As I discuss elsewhere, new stakeholders, such as Muslim and non-Muslim NGOs, now seek to extract from Islamic traditions such ritual resources in order to promote environmental care. The conditions that shift landscapes of prayer in this manner also form the contours for pluralistic religious norms of environmentalism that are committed to notions of the traditions of “world religions.” This renders Muslim prayers, now re-dedicated in their intent to be universally and instrumentally “environmental” as globalized performances in our shared era of the Anthropocene.

Part One: Landscapes of Environmental Prayer
Part Two: Mount Merapi, Prayer and Disaster
Part Three: Dedicating Environmental Devotions
Part Four: Islam and Prayers for the Environment in Java

April 29, 2015

Woman-Led Prayer: A Conversation with Juliane Hammer

The following is an interview conducted by Professor Fareen Parvez and Mariam Awaisi with Juliane Hammer, Associate Professor and Kenan Rifai Scholar of Islamic Studies at UNC Chapel Hill. Professor Hammer specializes in the study of American Muslims, contemporary Muslim thought, women and gender in Islam, and Sufism. She reflects here on the topic of woman-led ritual prayers in Islam and the debate surrounding them.


Fareen Parvez and Mariam Awaisi: In your book, American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer, you discuss the various stakes involved in the debate over woman-led prayers. These include the integrity of the Islamic legal tradition, authority, gender justice, and the politicizing of Islam. This is clearly an important issue. At the same time, it seems to us that we must be careful not to conflate the overall status and well-being of Muslim women across societies with their roles within religious ritual practice. Can you tell us more about the importance of women’s leadership in prayer?

Juliane Hammer: In the book I argue that the debate about woman-led prayer is about more than the question of whether women can, should, or want to lead mixed gender congregations in prayer. In that sense, it is not a matter of conflating issues, but a matter of pointing out that what is at stake in the particular debate about women’s ritual leadership is a larger question about the roles of women in Muslim communities. The answers that constitute the debate come from different actors and represent different perspectives. Thus, for those advocating for women’s prayer leadership, it is a reflection of women’s equality to do so, while opponents point out that women’s rights, safety, integrity, etc. can be achieved without their prayer leadership. It is then a debate about whether leading prayers is representative of women’s status in Muslim communities and societies. In other words, if women are not accepted as prayer leaders, what does that tell us about their status otherwise? Do arguments about why women should not lead prayers, such as their menstrual cycle (women are exempt from prayer during menstruation), the potential temptation that their bodies pose for men praying behind them, concerns about the legal validity of prayers performed behind a woman, etc., tell us something about gender roles and boundaries? Taken to its logical consequence, the debate about woman-led prayer is about what equality might mean and whether different interpretations of that idea (i.e. egalitarianism, different but equal, complementary and equal, and so on), as applied to Muslim communities and societies, are part of God’s intent for humanity. It is, of course, also possible to argue that God did not intend equality for the sexes in the social sphere. It is this distinction between the social and ritual spheres that some argue distinguishes prayers from other aspects of life, while others would say that congregational prayer is simultaneously a ritual and social act. Thus, who can and cannot lead prayers is symbolic of both spheres.

FP and MA: Aside from the issue of leading the ritual prayer, there is also the question of khutbas (“sermons”), typically delivered at jum’ah (“Friday prayers”). Although women may not deliver Friday khutbas in front of a congregation, they may write them and thereby communicate and lead via written format rather than oral. Is this actually practiced in the U.S.? Are these types of avenues embraced by Islamic feminists and activists, or are they viewed as limited in potential?

JH: In the debates outlined above, the two acts are often conflated but they are indeed two different religious acts. There is some legal debate, and thus room, for women to lead at least other women in congregational prayer (not Friday prayer), but traditional legal opinions do not under any circumstances allow women to offer the Friday sermon. The two functions, to lead Friday prayer and to offer the khutba, are not always carried out by the same person either.

While the practice of having women write a khutba and then having a male member of the community read it to the congregation was not part of my research, I have of course come across examples a few times, both in North America and in Germany. Some of the women who do this argue that it is an approach that allows them to stay within their communities and affect gradual change. I would estimate, though, that communities that accept this practice are in the minority; women and men who push for more radical change are often faced with the necessity of leaving their communities and building new ones that reflect agreement on these foundational questions.

As I pointed out above, it is worth asking why a woman’s ideas are acceptable in khutba form. In this case, the problem is not her intellectual ability or religious qualifications, but her physical and aural presence in front of the congregation. More broadly, this is a question of the role of change in religious traditions. Are religious communities and their practices and interpretations constantly changing, as Talal Asad argued when he defined the idea of “discursive tradition”? If that is the case, how do communities determine how much change and in which direction? When do religious communities change so much that they disintegrate? And how much uniformity can one expect from a religious community of over a billion followers?

FP and MA: In many communities, women themselves will say that they desire women-only spaces, that such separation suits their norms and makes them more comfortable. What is the relationship between this, on one hand, and the activism in support of mixed congregations and worship, on the other hand?

JH: You are right—many communities, particularly in North America, have engaged in discussions of women’s spaces. In fact, the initial prompt for Asra Nomani, the lead organizer of the 2005 woman-led Friday prayer in New York, was a change in the construction of the mosque she attended in Morgantown, West Virginia. Thus, for the organizers and participants of the prayer event, the two issues are clearly connected.

At the same time, a good bit of the debate revolved around the distinction between women’s prayer leadership and women’s status, roles, and spaces in mosques. There was much broader consensus on the need for women’s participation in leadership and better prayer facilities as well. Prominent supporters of this type of change included Zaid Shakir, an important American Muslim leader and scholar and Ingrid Mattson,then-president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), which has led more than one initiative about women’s spaces and status in mosques since 2005.

It strikes me that the arguments about women-only spaces are not new. If one traces the study of Muslim women from the early twentieth century to the present, there was a period in the 1980s in which the earlier condemnation of gender segregation made way for very interesting discussions of women-only spaces and single sex dynamics. This exploration had a lot to do with questions of women’s agency and led to some celebration of segregated spaces. At the same time, this is also a younger version of feminist debates and critiques of the distinction between the public and the private spheres, and the ways in which exclusion from the former creates a power differential that is a product of patriarchy. This, then, brings us full circle in our discussions of gender equality.

There is, of course, also a complex nature/nurture debate at play here: do Muslim women who feel more comfortable in segregated spaces feel that way because they have been socialized to? What should communities do with those women who do not feel that way? Can they be accommodated as well? I am reminded of an episode of Little Mosque on the Prairie, a Canadian sitcom written by Zarqa Nawaz that aired on Canadian public TV from 2007 to 2012. In the episode, the small community at the center of the show debates a physical barrier between men and women in the prayer room. After much discussion the imam arrives at a Solomonic solution: a partial barrier. Those women who want to pray behind it can, and those who don’t can pray behind the men.

Perhaps it helps to think of this as a spectrum and to think of different communal practices, and changes to such practices, as situated on this spectrum. There are communities with a long history of shared prayer spaces and others that have long had separate spaces. It is also the case that Muslim women and men attend prayers and other events at mosques that have spatial arrangements they like, and they might stop going to a mosque whose gender management they do not agree with.

FP and MA: It seems that there’s a tension between the need to sustain a social movement around these issues and the consequences that organized movements can entail, such as sensationalized and inaccurate media reporting. This is especially fraught when it comes to Islam. To what extent do you think that greater social change around Muslim women’s mosque participation can occur in this particular global political and media environment? What have you seen to be the main barriers to sustaining a social movement?

JH: I would not want to think of the visibility of Muslim communities as a barrier to sustaining a movement. This is a version of the argument for not airing dirty laundry in public that has been used to slow or stop all kinds of social change. In fact, as I argue in my book, the organizers of the prayer event intentionally utilized media interest to generate intra-Muslim conversation. And that conversation or debate has certainly taken place under the gaze of non-Muslims in the form of various media. I do not think that media attention, or less positively, media bias, has prevented woman-led prayer from becoming a social movement. I am not even sure that was the intent of the organizers. Rather, the prayer event reflected a certain momentum in terms of gender debate and provided that debate with some energy. There are groups and communities in which women and men take turns leading prayers and offering khutbas, and there are communities where that took place before 2005. There are projects, initiatives, and networks of Muslims who work for changes to existing gender practices, including, but also beyond, prayer leadership. And I find it very important to point out that change is directional. It is dangerous to present changes in gender practices as a trajectory towards progress in which Muslims both perpetually play catch up with non-Muslims and in which religion itself easily becomes disposable as part of what holds women back. American Muslim communities produce discourses and practice their religion in a multitude of ways, while often claiming that their discourses and practices are universal and that there is a larger community of Muslims who need to all agree. The reality is much more complex and in my view provides room for debate and for a diversity of practices and interpretations.

FP and MA: Can we say that the struggle for woman-led prayers is a global phenomenon? If so, in what ways do these struggles and successes abroad differ from what we’ve seen in the American context?

JH: I would say no, it is not a global phenomenon by any means. There have been woman-led prayers elsewhere in the world, again, both before and after March 2005. There are global echoes of the debate that took place in 2005, but the event itself is framed more by the American religious landscape and developments in American society than by shared and global Muslim debates about women’s prayer leadership. That is not to say that it is not also part of global discussions among Muslims about gender roles and women’s status in society. It feeds and is fed by such global conversations. But it is precisely in this global framing that other concerns about Muslim women’s safety, welfare, legal equality as well as issues of poverty, racism, war and occupation take precedent over the specific concern with women’s ritual leadership.

In an interesting way, the international responses to the event in 2005 also help us understand the complex relationship between American Muslims as American and as transnational and the ways in which discursive developments among American Muslims are perceived among other Muslims. The organizers of the event were celebrated, but were also branded as agents of American imperialism, bent on undermining Islam and Muslim societies. It is here that the significance and strategic location of American Muslims becomes most evident. The debate thus allowed for important reflections on the role of American Muslims in global Muslim landscapes.


Professor Hammer is the author of Palestinians Born in Exile: Diaspora and the Search for a Homeland (2005) and American Muslim Women, Religious Authority, and Activism: More Than a Prayer (2012) and the co-editor of  A Jihad for Justice: Honoring the Work and Life of Amina Wadud (with Kecia Ali and Laury Silvers, 2012) and The Cambridge Companion to American Islam (with Omid Safi, 2013). She is currently working on a book project focusing on American Muslim efforts against domestic violence, and on a larger project exploring American Muslim discourses on marriage, family, and sexuality.

January 28, 2015

Nigerian Muslims' and Christians' Prayer Practices Come Together

2014 Eid ul-Fitr Praying - Imam Ali Shrine - Najaf | Image via Flickr user Sonia SevillaThe news from Nigeria that makes world headlines is most often about violence being done in the name of Islam, but Ebenezer Obadare’s research brings to light a more positive development in the Muslim/Christian relationship. He calls it competitive amity.

“In Nigeria, the fight for converts is fierce and constant with each side promising earthly purpose and eternal salvation. The Muslims have, of course, noticed that the Pentecostals are having great success in winning souls. And so, they are taking lessons and adapting accordingly,” Ebenezer Obadare says.

See the full posting at Psychology Today.

December 17, 2014

Allah Guides to His Light Whomever He Wishes

In Guernica’s special issue on religion in America, NDSP grantee Peter Manseau examines “the evolving place of Islam in America” through the story of Kenny Irwin, Jr. and his annual “Robolights” display.

As one might expect from a man who owns more than 8 million plastic bulbs attached to miles of rubber cording, Kenny has a lot to say about light. He can speak with authority about the amps involved in putting on his display, and he knows that since he switched from incandescents to LEDs a few years ago, he can safely run forty strings of lights together from a single source, instead of only four or five. Yet one word he often uses to discuss light will not be found in any electrician’s handbook: nur.

“I call it a celebration of nur,” he says of Robolights. “A celebration of the fact that God not only created the universe, he shone light into it.”

Read the full story here.

December 10, 2014

Reciting the Quran in the Urban Periphery

One of the practices I’ve regularly participated in during my ethnography of French, working-class, Salafist women is Quranic memorization and recitation. Quranic reading circles are common among women of many mosque communities. Recitation is linked to prayer because reciting chapters and verses from the Quran is part of the required daily prayers (salat) as well as to invocations, such as prayers for protection or healing. For women, reading and memorizing chapters of the Quran, as opposed to salat, is unrestricted: they may do it with or without the hijab, and they may do so regardless of menstruation. To some extent, these factors made our sessions more relaxed and intimate, despite the immense effort and work that reading and memorization demanded.

Beginning courses and study circles in my field site at the urban periphery of Lyon tend to focus on basic literacy. More advanced projects focus on the art of tajwīd, or recitatio­n that follows specific forms of articulation, pauses, and comportment, and is thought to emulate the Prophet’s own practices. Our mosque teacher had said that tajwīd is not obligatory, but it is obligatory to read the Quran correctly (i.e. with no mistakes in pronouncing the Arabic letters). Incorrect reading and recitation could significantly alter the meaning of the verses and in turn, the content of one’s prayers.


March 28, 2014

Take It to the Bridge: Jazz Prayers

“Lord, hear our prayer.” That was the sound of religion to me growing up, Sunday mornings in the darkened warmth of Saint Mark’s Episcopal on Capitol Hill, D.C. I heard these intonations not as the sound of heaven and earth mediated so much as a response to silence, and the courage to overcome it while also dwelling in it. Indeed, there were vast expanses of silence in this part of the service, some of them seeming to stretch out almost audaciously. Even as an altar boy (a pretty bumbling one, I admit), I wondered, was this how people did and sounded out religion elsewhere? Years before I knew about Quaker meetings or the range of meditative practices in religious traditions, the oscillation between prayer’s orality/aurality and those silent chasms unnerved me. But always, almost mercifully, a lone voice would rise up from some distant corner of the church, those vast vaulted ceilings giving the prayer a gravity, a context: a plea for strength as a relationship frayed, or for comfort during illness, to which the congregation responded as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” I remember being stunned when my father became one of those voices, praying in 1985 for Uncle Bill, in 1989 for Grandma, in 1992 for himself. The possibility that one of those voices might be so close by, his hand in mine, had never even occurred to me. It terrified and consoled me at once.


January 29, 2014

Laughter and the Supreme Court

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.]

With her citation of Latour’s faxed pizza, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan argues that law in Town of Greece v. Galloway traces, delimits, and “tames” prayer such that the facsimile produced is a mere reproduction framed by the technology—in this case, the legal concepts—translating it. The work of the law, Sullivan suggests, is to transform religion, “to obscure the actual practices in the case, reducing them to types in service of law’s own logics.” As a result, she notes, “law does not need courts” because the power of law extends beyond courts and provides rules structuring daily practice. In its work of transformation and concealment, however, the unfolding of the law through its institutional manifestations—hearings, court briefs, amici curiae, transcripts—reveals to us not only, as Sullivan suggests, “the juridification of life in its very subjectivity,” but also how such manifestations authorize particular beliefs and practices as acceptable civil norms. As a result of this attempt of inclusion and authorization, an always inescapable moment of exclusion occurs and it is this moment of exclusion, I argue, that helps us explore Benjamin Schonthal’s observation of a moment of religious practice or belief that remains untamed despite the classificatory and performative aspects of legalizing discourse at work upon it.


November 8, 2013

Muslim Prayer Beads

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

My recent ethnographic fieldwork with an Islamic sect in Turkey focuses on the use of objects during prayer practices, especially prayer beads and their mechanical and digital versions. This study explains the way objects are used, adapted, and appropriated in and through the performance of religious rituals and the expression of faith. Moreover, my ethnography demonstrates that the physical properties of these objects (material substance, visual qualities, amount, etc.) play an integral part in the negotiation and construction of the domains of the sacred and the profane. In this regard, objects have been central to the conduct, facilitation, organization and arrangement of practicing faith.


October 11, 2013

Naming and Omission

Munavarbhai is a 42-year-old watch-guard (chokidar) of a middle-class Muslim housing society in a suburb of Ahmedabad, the Indian state of Gujarat’s largest city. His wife Haneiferben does domestic work, but also intermittently works as a house cleaner for Hindu and Muslim middle-class families. Munavarbhai and Haneiferben belong to the informal sector of Ahmedabad’s highly stratified economy. Their nuclear family consists of four heads and has to make do with approximately RS 5,000 a month (roughly US $80). They live in an area of Juhapura called Fatehvadi, in proximity with various rishtedar (relatives) including members of their respective kutumbvala (members of the patriline) interspersed with houses of migrant laborers from outside the state (mostly from Uttar Pradesh) and various other Muslim communities. They hold close social connections with their respective home villages, in which they are officially registered, and to which they regularly return for marriages, festivals, and political elections.


May 31, 2013

The Muslim Xbox

A machine that I’ve taken to calling “Pray Pray Revolution” stands out, among hundreds of other prayer systems and devices described in patent applications, due to its inventor’s precisian approach to ritual movement. In 2009 Wael Abouelsaadat, a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Toronto, filed an application for an interactive prayer system with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. His system for “enhancing prayer” has three key components. First, it has a prayer rug equipped with force sensors and vibrating motors. This pressure-sensitive pad registers when and in precisely what order a user’s knees, hands and forehead touch the ground. Second, the system comes equipped with a camera that takes digital photographs of the user in motion. Through a posture detection technique involving the use of geometric modeling tools, a software program establishes a kinematic model of his or her bodily poses. Finally, this system also features a screen that coordinates the display of scriptural passages—in the original script of revelation or liturgy, as well as in transliteration and translation—with the performance of particular gestures of prayer.

Abouelsaadat’s invention may seem unremarkable to a generation of gamers and engineers familiar with Konami’s video game Dance Dance Revolution and, more pertinently, Microsoft’s innovative motion-sensing device for its Xbox 360 video-game console, Kinect. From a technological perspective, it is indeed a fairly straightforward application of recent innovations. What I find remarkable, however, is the fact that Abouelsaadat approaches ritualized prayer from an engineer’s perspective as a modern problem that can be solved by modern technology. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to schedule ritual,” he claims, “with the rapid life pace of the modern world.” Laypersons lack the knowledge and skills to perform prayer movements correctly and in perfect synchrony with the recitation of apt formulas derived from sacred texts. They want to “customize their ritual experience with minimum time spent in educating themselves.” His praying machine would in particular provide Muslims pressed for time but eager to learn how to pray perfectly with the necessary technological assistance.


April 15, 2013

Supplications and Islamic Reformism

During my fieldwork in Lyon, France, and its working-class urban periphery, I heard a refrain among Muslims and non-Muslims alike about the “superficiality” of reformist (in this case, Salafist) concerns: among others, their concern over the details of prayer, from body positioning to length of time spent in prayer. I eventually lost track of how many times I heard this common sentiment, and over time, I learned the deep inaccuracy of this view. This isn’t particularly surprising, given the global (mis)perceptions of reformist movements as both troubling and homogenous. I use “reformism” here as employed by Osella and Osella as “…projects whose specific focus is the bringing into line of religious beliefs and practices with the core foundations of Islam, by avoiding and purging out innovation, accretion and the intrusion of ‘local custom’…”. 

A category of Islamic prayer whose centrality to the faith I began to understand while spending time with reformist women in Lyon’s periphery is duas, or supplications. These are distinct from the daily obligatory salat. According to the Prophet’s teachings, they constitute a form of worship and express one’s ultimate humility vis-à-vis her Creator. As I saw among my companions in the field, duas are crucial to questions of avoiding shirk (associating other powers or entities with God); having a direct, unmediated relationship to God; and perfecting one’s faith. These are central concerns among reformist women.


March 19, 2013

Public Prayer in France, a Vexed Question in the Cradle of Revolution

Why can some believers pray in the street in France, the home of revolution and laïcité or strong state-enforced secularism, while others are forbidden?

As I wrote in my opinion column for Quartz, a new all-digital news platform published by Atlantic Media, publishers of The Atlantic Monthly, the principle of separation of church and state seems to apply differently depending on your religion.

If you are bowing down in the direction of Mecca, and uttering your daily prayers as a devout Muslim in a big assembly in a Paris street, you can risk arrest. 

But a radical group of breakaway Catholics is using prayer, and specifically prayers like the Rosary, to protest in the French street against moves to legalize gay marriage. They had legal permits to assemble in a public demonstration of opposition to attempts to give same-sex couples the right to marry. So far they have done so without any attempts by police or the executive arm of President Francois Hollande’s government to stop them. 

In contrast, Muslims lacking Mosques or perhaps in some cases wanting to challenge deep-seated public suspicion about France’s second religion after Catholicism have since 2011 had to adjust to a Nicolas Sarkozy-imposed edict pushing them off the streets.

Yet as one French law student argued in a Twitter response to my article, ‘‘there is a difference between praying one day for a cause and praying everyday in the street like it’s a mosque, don’t you think?’’

The line between acceptable public displays of religion, secularism, and illegality is not always a clear one in France. Prayer is a flash-point for deep-seated views about who has the right to express their devotion and difference in the public square.

February 26, 2013

An Ethnography of Religious Labor in an Indian Muslim Community

This project is an ethnographic exploration of Muslim prayer (namaz), the central practice in formal worship (salah or salat), and its relation to other religious and secular labor in a suburban community in Ahmedabad, India. It explores prayer, specifically, as exemplary religious labor embedded in a range of religious practices, and religious labor, generally, as it relates to secular labor practices. It focuses on a single community, Juhapura, home to a diverse array of Muslim communities, most recently relocated from villages, with pronounced class and caste differences, rural-urban divides, and sectarian divisions between reformist and conservative establishments. It concentrates on prayer in a particular class segment of Juhapura society: unskilled laborers employed in the informal sector.

In addition to ethnographically rigorous research on a little studied community, this research contributes conceptually to the understanding of prayer comparatively by opening up several questions: 1) How do Muslims move into and out of prayer and, how do particular occupations contribute to irregular or “non-normative” prayer? How do these practices contribute to self-understandings and influence locations within Juhapura Muslim society? 2) How is the Koranic style of learning (memorization and recitation of text) embedded in a wider Gujarati cultural context of learning, where interactions are always inflected by politico-cultural movements (such as Hindu nationalism)? What effect do these contexts have on the consolidation of religious practices by minority Muslims and the reception of majoritarian (Hindu) concepts of hierarchy, caste, devotion, pollution, and ahimsa? 3) How is prayer invoked to mediate the dynamics of segmentation, class, and religious differentiation? 4) Islamic practices in Ahmedabad are informed by the diverse community and caste relations with non-Muslims (e.g., Hindu-Jain-Sikh) of the rural villages of birth of most Juhapura residents. How do rural syncretic religious practices change and differentiate in the suburban environment? 3) In what way do changing concepts of communal and individual prayer (both namaz and dua) influence the understanding of other forms of religious labor, such as sermons and lecture series (kusbo) in mosques, naming practices, divine invocations, gift exchanges, spirit possession/exorcisms, conversion and intermarriage, alms giving and financial services, and embodied practices in comportment, clothing styles, and diet? 5) What are the mutual effects of recent transformations in the organization of the informal economy on specifically religious practices? In what way do everyday demands of organizing life through informal work reflect or change understandings of religious labor, and specifically prayer?

The intellectual merit of the project is to document ethnographically a specific case of the social and institutional dynamics of Muslim prayer in a changing political-economic context (Gujarat, India), which can then be used to theorize in what way prayer and secular activities are mutually imbricated in the same context, rather than positing them as oppositional philosophical-historical tenets. The broader impact of this research will be to provide an empirical case study of prayer, with a more nuanced understanding of contexts in which such activity becomes meaningful. More specifically, it will inform scholars across disciplines about the mutual effects of changes in the international organization of service labor on Muslim prayer and religious activities generally in India.

February 26, 2013

Repertoires of Devotion: Prayer and the Rise of Charismatic Islam

In the aftermath of 9/11, the assumption that adherents of evangelical Christianity and reformist Islam inhabit discrepant, permanently warring publics, has solidified. The dominant narrative is one of mutual antagonism, which positions these religions as foundational in major global conflicts. In Western Nigeria however, scholars have noted new forms of Islamic prayer whose modalities such as all-night prayer sessions, Sunday Services, personal testimonies, and a new emphasis on good and evil bear a striking resemblance to those of Pentecostal Christians, Similarly, evangelicals are engaging in new approaches to prayer and uses of religious space that reveal the influence of Islamic practices. The convergence between the religious practices of these two groups reveals the direct sharing and transfer of experiences in religious practices and evangelizing stratagems. The new forms of Islamic prayer suggest an emergence of “Charismatic Islam” as can be seen in the intensification in (Yourba) Islam of the kind of “all-embracing enthusiasm” (Ojo 2006) normally associated with Pentecostalism.

In this study, I use the case of these new dramatizations of Muslim prayer in order to understand broader questions such as: how does the transformation of Islam, betoken by these new expressions of prayer, help us to understand the shifting boundaries between Islam and Christianity, particularly in ecologies where both remain socially, economically, politically, and ideologically competitive? Further, to the extent that the nascent modalities of worship symbolize or anticipate doctrinal transformation within faiths, how does a study of prayer provide an analytic platform for understanding of critical shifts and tension within and between Christianity and Islam primarily within the cultural contest of Western Nigeria? In a national context in which the state is disconnected from ordinary people’s lives, prayer has become a central element in the rearrangement of personal and inter-personal regimes, and in the composition of ordinary people’s selfhood. Using prayer transfer and imitation, important components of how the two faiths relate in Western Nigeria, I interrogate the role of these emergent forms of Islamic prayer in the deeper transformation of the totality of the religious culture in the area.

To address questions, I will conduct ethnographic research that focuses on close observation of devotional programs and social events among Islamic groups in two Western Nigerian cities: Lagos and Ibadan. My goal is to closely monitor these events to capture the expressions and nuances of the new protocols of Islamic prayer. My work in the field will be supplemented by interviews with participants. The primary data I plan to collect will be supplemented with an analysis of audiovisual material used by Islamic groups for proselytization. Secondary data will come from published books, journal articles, newspaper reports, and religious pamphlets and tracts. The intellectual payoff of this research will be to challenge the ideas of an “economy of political panic” (Last 2007) or “cosmologies in collision” (Kileyesus 2006) that have appeared in mainstream literature. Instead, I will shift the emphasis to a “spiritual economy” (Rudnychyj 2010) in which, even as theological differences remain salient, competing faiths, in their attempts to expand and preserve themselves, frequently cross boundaries to appropriate the other’s devotional and conversionary strategies. In addition, by emphasizing the strategies of mutual influence and appropriation between Islam and Christianity, the research demonstrates the fundamental “instability of the borders” (Larkin 2008, 103; cf. Soares 2006) between these seemingly antagonistic groups, providing deep insight into their modes of adaptation and accommodation.